As the vineyards in Seneca Lake, New York, prepare for the seasonal "Deck the Halls Around the Lake" festivities, someone is determined to keep pinot noir off the wine list. Hijacked trucks and sabotaged ingredients have made it a hard-to-acquire vintage for the six local wineries-including Norrie Ellington's Two Witches Winery.
The case of the stolen and spoiled wines gets stranger when Arnold Mowen, owner of the company distributing the wine, is found dead, the apparent victim of a hunting accident. As Norrie tries to find the connections between the pinot's problems and Arnold's death, she uncovers a conspiracy among many locals whose hatred for the wine distributor was bottled up for far too long. . .
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Two Witches Winery, Penn Yan, New York
It was a little past eleven in the morning, Tuesday to be precise, and I couldn't believe what I heard when I walked into the Two Witches Winery tasting room. At first, I thought it was a joke, but when I saw our manager, Cammy, and her crew hanging festive tea lights around the huge fireplace, I realized they were serious about the holiday music that filled the entire room.
"Hey, guys!" I called out. "It's mid-November. We haven't even gotten to Thanksgiving yet."
Cammy placed a coiled handful of lights on one of the tasting room tables and stepped toward me. "It may be November, Norrie, but the annual 'Deck the Halls around the Lake' begins next weekend. We've got to get this place looking like the North Pole by week's end. This year we're adding some battery-operated lights in case the power goes out, and we bought some of those cottony things that look like snow. Can you believe it? The food-eating and gift-giving holidays are upon us."
"Yeesh. I almost forgot. Didn't we just take down the Halloween decorations?" I tossed my ski jacket over one of the chairs near the front counter and took a closer look at the room. "With that tight editing deadline I had for my screenplay and a new draft due in two weeks, I've kind of been in my own world."
"No kidding." Sam rubbed the bit of reddish stubble on his chin. "You've become the phantom of the bistro. Worse than some of my college profs who breeze in and out barking orders at their teaching assistants."
"What? I don't do that, do I?"
"He's giving you a hard time," Cammy said. She tightened the green ribbon around her loosely held bun, allowing more than a few strands of deep brown hair to spill about her face. "All we've seen of you is a blur. You rush in, head straight to the bistro for your lunch, and rush out."
"That bad, huh?"
"Oh yeah," everyone chimed in.
The tasting room crew, along with Theo and Don from neighboring Grey Egret Winery, was my second family here on Seneca Lake. My first one, consisting of my parents, the former owners of the winery, retired and couldn't move to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, fast enough. They deeded the business to my sister, Francine, and me. She and her entomologist husband, Jason, were ecstatic, but I couldn't bear the thought of living in Penn Yan and managing a winery. Not when I had a degree in screenwriting and a decent contract with a Canadian film company to produce my romances.
In addition, I'd recently acquired my late aunt Tessie's apartment near Little Italy in Manhattan and had no plans to give that up. Crazy, I wasn't. So, I became the silent winery partner. Silent until Jason got a grant from Cornell's New York State Agricultural Experiment Station to study some elusive bug in Costa Rica.
Francine used her power as the "older by one year" sister to convince me to sublet my apartment and manage the winery. "You'll have lots of free time to write your screenplays. The place all but runs itself."
Yeah, sure. She should've gone into the used car business. The place might have run itself, but murders don't solve themselves. Yep, murders. No sooner did I arrive in June when their miserable next-door neighbor was found dead in our Riesling vineyard. Then three months later, a dead body cropped up across the road at Terrace Wineries, and I wound up tracking down the killer. It was no wonder I wanted to breeze in and out of the place.
"I'll try not to be such a stranger around here. I take it we're all set for 'Deck the Halls around the Lake.' How many people are we expecting?"
Before Cammy could answer, Lizzie looked up from her computer screen at the cash register and adjusted her glasses. "The wine trail has sold one hundred seventy-five tickets for next weekend and two hundred for the weekend before Christmas. Online sales for both weekend events are booming. Did you read the letter from Henry Speltmore? He sent multiple copies to all of the wineries."
I gulped. Another thing I must've ignored. "You mean the president of the Seneca Lake Wine Association?"
"How many Henry Speltmores do you know?" Cammy asked.
"Very funny, and no, I didn't get a chance to read it. What did it say?"
Sam waved his hands in the air and laughed. "I'll save you some time. It said, 'Blah, blah, wineries ... blah, blah tourism ... blah blah first impressions ... Want me to go on?"
"Nah, I think I've got it. Besides, I got the lowdown from Stephanie Ipswich from Gable Hill Winery last week. According to her, Henry didn't want any of the wineries to skimp on the desserts they make for the customers. Seems there was a problem with someone's chocolate bread pudding a few years ago, and it still comes back to haunt us."
Glenda, who was busy tying green, gold, and red ribbons around the wine racks, stopped for a moment. I really must have blown past the tasting room these past few weeks because I didn't realize her hair was now a deep red with pink highlights.
"The problem was," she said, "whoever made those bread puddings forgot the chocolate. To make matters worse, they overbaked the things and some people actually broke their teeth biting into it."
"Ew, that better not happen to us. What are we making?"
"Pinot Noir truffles," Cammy answered. "And don't worry. We won't forget the Pinot Noir. This event is the major money maker for the wine association, and we don't want to be the ones to blow it. If they wind up short on their advertising budget, we'll never hear the end of it."
Without the Seneca Lake Wine Association, each individual winery would be on its own when it came to marketing and advertising, but with the thirty or so member wineries working together, it virtually assured the Finger Lakes Wine Region would be on the tourism map. Nope, no lousy bread pudding for us.
I immediately walked toward Lizzie. "Um, you said three hundred seventy-five tickets so far. Do we have a cap on the number of people?"
"Four hundred total," she said. "And not one person more. We already have the favors and goody bags, so that's not a problem. We're giving attendees little ornaments that feature two witches flying around a Christmas tree."
"What did we give them last year?" I asked.
Lizzie patted down her tightly coiffed grey hair and smiled. "Two witches flying around a snowman."
I rolled my eyes, hoping no one would notice, but Sam did. "Hey, at least it's better than that winery near Watkins Glen. They give out a small framed ornament in the shape of a wine bottle each year and it's got a photo of their owner inside it."
"Yeesh. I wouldn't even want us to give out photos of our goat and, believe me, Alvin really is quite popular, even though he spits."
"He only spits at you, Norrie," he said, followed by a chorus of "yeah."
Just then, our ancient relic of a wall phone rang, and Lizzie turned her head from the counter to pick it up. "It's for you, Norrie. It's Theo Buchman. He said he tried the house and when there was no answer, he figured you were here."
She handed me the phone and I walked behind her, leaving her enough room to man the cash register/computer monitor. Cammy, Sam, and Glenda went back to their decorating, and I took the call.
"Hey, Theo, what's up?"
"I take it you didn't catch the morning news, or you would've called."
"What? What happened? Who died?"
"No one died, but, get this, a tractor trailer truck was hijacked on the east side of the lake south of Waterloo. And not just any old tractor trailer truck. It happens to belong to Lake-to-Lake Wine Distributors."
"What? That's our wine distributor!"
"Norrie, Lake-to-Lake is the distributor for most of the wineries on Seneca Lake and certainly all of them in our little Winery of the West group. The truck was on its way over to our side when it happened. Imagine if they'd started with us. According to the news, the hijackers made off with forty cases of wine from four different wineries. Not a small-time theft, that's for sure. At least no one was injured, but this is a first."
"Yikes. I've never heard of anything like that. Did the news have any other details?"
"Yeah. They'll pass along more information as soon as they get it. Guess I'll be watching the six o'clock news tonight. You know, with the change in their compensation schedule, it makes me wonder if maybe we should be thinking about contracting with more than one distributor."
"Their compensation rates for our wines has changed. It's lower. Not drastic but enough to make a difference. They blamed it on a shift in the market prices, but who knows? Anyway, they only distribute wines to New York and Pennsylvania. We're missing out in states like Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. And those markets are growing. We wouldn't be the first wineries to use multiple distributors. Hey, it's just a thought. I'll catch you later, okay?"
"Sure thing. Thanks for letting me know."
"You won't believe this," I said out loud and then proceeded to tell everyone about Theo's call.
"They took off with forty cases of wine?" Glenda's question sounded more like a statement.
"That's what the news said. I don't know anything else."
Cammy, whose aunts owned Rosinetti's bar in Geneva, and whose family had been in that business forever, shook her head. "They'll be unloading it on the black market for sure. No legit business is about to buy wine that doesn't come directly from the winery or their distributor."
"Or maybe someone's going to have one hell of a frat party," Sam said. "After all, the holidays are coming."
"Seriously?" Lizzie asked. "Since when do fraternities hijack trucks of wine?"
Sam let out an extended groan. "I was only joking. Lighten up. At least it wasn't ours." Then he paused. "That sounded kind of callous, didn't it? Sorry. What I meant was —"
Cammy tossed some ribbons at him and pointed to the T-shirt bins. "Never mind. We get it. Let's hurry up and get this done before the next onslaught of customers arrives. They've been coming in spurts all morning, with that big crowd leaving a few minutes before Norrie walked in."
Sam gathered the holiday ribbons to his chest and headed to the bins, where Glenda was already fastening some bits of fake greenery. Lizzie turned her attention to the computer monitor, leaving Cammy and me to talk privately.
"Shh," I said. "I don't need Glenda to hear this or she'll want to hold one of her aura cleansing rituals, but you don't think this is an omen, do you? I mean, who on earth hijacks a delivery truck full of wine? The bottles are breakable."
"No one ever said thieves are intelligent. For all anyone knows, it could've been a gang initiation out of Rochester or Syracuse. Happens, you know."
I wasn't convinced. "Forty cases is a lot of wine. Not the kind of thing that fits easily into someone's car."
"No, but I wager those cases would fit very nicely into someone's van. Especially one of those oversized ones. Chances are the driver got a decent description and the state troopers are working on it right now."
"State troopers? Not the county sheriff's department?"
Cammy tightened the ribbon on her bun. "Oh, I'm sure they'll be involved, but it happened on a state road, so that's a clarion call for the New York State Troopers."
"Well, I hope they answer the call pretty soon. Last thing we need is a wine-stealing ring working their way around the lake right before the holidays."
"Better than a killer. We've had our fair share of those."
I shuddered and told Cammy I'd keep her posted if I heard anything — not that I expected to. After all, Two Witches wasn't one of the wineries whose cases were stolen, even if we had the same distributor as the victims from the east side of the lake.
Then something occurred to me, and I felt like a total imbecile. I had no idea who the representative for our distributor was, let alone the owner of the company. Francine probably told me when I first arrived, but most likely I glossed over it, figuring it was something the winemaker, Franz Johannas, dealt with, along with bottle labeling and packaging for shipments to restaurants and retail outlets. Crap. So much for a nice sandwich at the bistro.
"Um, I hate to walk in here and run, but I really need to grab something to eat and see Franz at the winery lab. I promise, next time I come in, I'll spend more time."
I swore I heard chortling noises coming from all of them as I grabbed my ski jacket and made a beeline to the bistro.
Fred, our sandwich and salad chef, who looked more like a long-haired high school kid than a graduate from culinary school, gave me a wide smile the minute he saw me. "Hey, Norrie, how's it going?"
"Faster than I'd like. Any chance you can make me a ham and cheese sandwich in a hurry? Whatever you have on hand is fine."
"Sure thing. Everything okay?"
"A delivery truck from our distributor was hijacked this morning, and thieves made off with quite a few cases. I found out a few minutes ago, and I need to see Franz in the winery lab. They're the ones who load our cases onto the trucks."
"Good grief! That's terrible. How much of our wine did they steal?"
"Oh, not our wine. It happened on the east side of the lake. They never made it to the west side for our cases. Ifwe were even on our distributor's schedule today. I wanted to talk with Franz to find out what he knows about the company we use." Or who our rep is.
"I see. Hang on. I'll get your lunch."
A few minutes later I pulled up the zipper of my ski jacket and walked outside. We might not have snow yet, but as far as I was concerned, it was cold enough to rival the North Pole.CHAPTER 2
The stunning array of autumn foliage disappeared overnight. Instead of a breathtaking view of reds, golds, and greens, I saw barren trees jutting up between the pines. Yep, it was November all right. Unlike Manhattan, where I had to rely on storefront windows to distinguish the seasons, in the Finger Lakes everything was left to nature. I rubbed my hands together and took long strides from the tasting room parking lot to the winery building, where Franz Johannas and his crew worked. Charlie, the winery Plott Hound, must've seen me. All of sudden, he was at my heels.
"You can wait outside," I said to the dog when I got to the door, "because Franz will have a conniption if I let you inside. Heck, I don't even think he wants me to go inside. They're really fussy about contamination."
The dog stared at me with his enormous brown eyes until something got his attention and he raced back up the hill toward our house. I rapped on the winery door a few times and Alan, the assistant winemaker, opened it. I swore, except for his height, he looked more and more like his boss each time I saw him — red hair and horned-rimmed glasses.
"Hi, Alan! How's it going?"
"Everything's good from our end. Come on in. We're almost done bottling the barrel-aged Pinot Noir. Boy, what a process it's been to age the wine. Of course, Franz likes to do a few things old school and that's one of them. It took all of us in the winery, plus a few of John's vineyard guys, to tip the barrel up so it could be charred for a minute. A regular pyrotechnic event if you ask me. The end-product was worth it, though. Not to say our stainless steel with oak-charred chips doesn't do the trick for most of our vintage. We still get the nuances in the flavors without all the drama."
"So, we wind up with two different Pinot Noirs?"
"Uh-huh. The really expensive ones with our specialty label are designated for upscale restaurants in New York and Pennsylvania. Some are under exclusive contract. The rest are sold to retail outlets and modest restaurants and chains."
Just then Franz appeared from the lab and gave me a nod. "That was quick. You didn't have to drive down from the house. It could've waited."
"What?" I wondered why he thought I drove. "What could've waited?"
Franz gave me a funny look. "I thought you were here because of the message I left you a few minutes ago."
"No. I'm coming from the tasting room. What message?"
Franz moaned dramatically. "I got a disturbing phone call from Gustav Geisler, the winemaker at the Red Salamander across the lake. Their shipment of Pinot Noir was stolen this morning outside of Waterloo. A truck hijacking. How utterly barbaric. And the Red Salamander wasn't the only winery whose wines were taken. Three others had cases stolen too. All red wines, according to him, but mostly Pinot Noir. Hooligans. That's what it was — hooligans."
"Guess those state troopers didn't waste any time tallying up the losses. That's why I came over here. Theo Buchman called me with the information. It was on the news, but I missed it. Franz, do you know who owns the wine distribution company we use and who our rep is?"
"The same owner since the late eighties — Arnold Mowen. The joke around here is he's the only man who can squeeze a nickel and get six cents. Undoubtedly, you've heard he lowered the rates he's paying us for our wines."
"Um, yeah. Theo said something about that. Market fluctuation, I think."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Pinot Red or Dead?"
Copyright © 2019 J.C. Eaton.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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